Why are the Chinese so afraid of Liu Xia bao?

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China is the world’s fastest growing economy. It is now second only to the United States in GDP. It weathered the financial crisis with scarcely a scratch. It owns a considerable portion of our debt. Others now look to its one-party dictatorship as a model for economic growth. Yet China is throwing a temper tantrum unworthy of a great country over the Nobel Committee’s decision to award its 2010 peace prize to Liu Xia bao.

To find something comparable, we have to go back to Nikita Khrushchev’s tirade over the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the 1958 literature prize to dissident writer Boris Pasternak. (Khrushchev did not rest until he badgered the committee into granting the prize to the ideologically sound Mikhail Sholokhov). Instead of projecting an image of world leadership, China looks off balance, out of sorts, and clearly worried. How can one lonely dissident evoke such fear?

Totalitarian regimes, such as China’s, cannot survive if they are perceived as illegitimate by their own citizens, the international community, and by subordinates who run the system on a day-to-day basis. A citizenry that rejects its regime’s legitimacy must be repressed, breeding more enemies. The army and secret police will become less loyal if their regime’s legitimacy is questioned. Illegitimacy focuses attention on dissidents and lowers the psychological self-confidence of those who run the system. Yet true legitimacy can be granted only by the people themselves. The Chinese leadership has sought to buy their loyalty through rapid growth and rising livings standards, hoping that would be enough to compensate for dictatorship and the lack of human rights. Liu Xia bao has wisely recognized China’s economic successes, but his message is that economic success in the absence of fundamental rights is without meaning.

Notably, Liu Xia bao and other Chinese dissidents have adopted the strategies of earlier dissidents in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: nonviolence and insistence that the state observes the rights guaranteed in its constitution and international agreements. In China’s case, Liu demands that China honor Article 35 of its constitution, which grants citizens freedom of speech, assembly, and demonstration. Soviet dissidents also demanded that the Communists honor their own constitution and, later, the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Agreements, of which the Soviet Union was a signatory.

Liu and his fellow dissidents modeled their Charter 08 — whose provisions strike at the heart of the dictatorship — after the Czech Charter 77. Charter 08 is a recipe for dismantling the Chinese dictatorship. It demands constitutional guarantees of human rights, democratization, a rule of law above the party, the elimination of “education through labor,” equality of urban and rural populations, free competition of political parties, freedom of religion, and private property rights and free enterprise. The observation of only one or several of these demands would cause China’s one-party monopoly to topple.

China’s violent reaction to Liu’s Nobel Prize is only one example of the Chinese leadership’s extreme fear of anything dissident in nature. How otherwise should we interpret China’s efforts to isolate the Dalai Llama or the persecution, including executions, of the Faun Gong religious sect? It can also be seen in the fear of demonstrations that follow negligent government responses to natural disasters or other calamities. In these cases, usually some hapless government official is either fired or executed to quiet the discontent before it gets worse.

Ironically, if the people accept a dictatorship’s legitimacy, so too will subordinates. The execution of the Romanian dictator Ceausescu by his security forces followed immediately after he was jeered by the public. In one moment, he lost his legitimacy and the support of his subordinates. All dictatorships, China’s included, fear such a “Ceausescu moment,” when their subjects suddenly recognize that they are not legitimate and take action. China’s leaders understand that they have not been elected and that they gained their positions through a process the people have not approved. It is for this reason that they pretend to the pomp and circumstances of democracy, such as seen in the touted meetings of “elected” Party Congresses, supposedly assembled to do the people’s business.

Although many western analysts dismissed Soviet dissidents as unimportant and irrelevant, Soviet authorities took them very seriously. The Politburo, which ran the country, devoted many of its meetings to the complete eradication of dissidents. We do not have access to the minutes of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, but we imagine that the dissident movement has its full attention.

We also underestimate the importance of international recognition. The most cherished dream of the head of the East German Communist Party was to be received for tea by the Queen of England! We can imagine the delight of the Chinese Communists when they are met with bowing and scraping as they tour world capitals.

There are more general lessons to learn from Liu’s Nobel Prize concerning the role of dissidents in totalitarian regimes. First, totalitarian regimes fear internal dissent much more than we appreciate. They cannot afford a hint of alternative authority, no matter how weak. Iran’s hanging of protesters; Cuba’s jailing of the dissidents remaining after the mass exodus to Florida, and the Myanmar military junta’s obsession with Aung San Suu Kyi make this point. If such dissidents are so small in number and so powerless, as regimes would like us to think, why do these regimes fear them so much?

Second, by looking the other way on human rights abuses, we legitimize dictatorships and dishearten dissidents. What we want them to give up (in the case of North Korea and Iran, nuclear weapons) is a pillar of their claim to legitimacy. Such concessions can be obtained only through regime change.

Third, totalitarian regimes use secrecy and a controlled press to hide their weaknesses from their own citizens and the outside world. In fact, totalitarian regimes lack the flexibility to adapt. When subjected to pressure, they readily shatter. A regime that seems clad in iron can turn in one moment to fragile glass.

One of the authors can testify from personal experience how the Nobel Prizes for Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn strengthened the moral and political status of Soviet dissidents. This award will have the same effect on Chinese dissidents. It means world recognition of dissidents and the de-legitimization of the Communist system, which persecutes them. The hysterical reaction by Chinese Communist authorities is the best testimony to their fear and to the correctness of the decision by the Nobel Committee.

Yuri Yarim-Agaev is a former Soviet dissident and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. He is now a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Paul Gregory is a professor at the University of Houston and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.